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Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, I hope that the House will understand and permit me to refrain from making a long and detailed speech attempting to counter the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, or to rebut the points made by the Minister at this Report stage. I wish to make that my practice throughout the Report stage. I do not wish to re-open anything which has previously been said.

I reiterate my disappointment on reading the SCAA document, which seemed to me to be sparse in its definition of the curriculum. It describes language and literacy in fewer than 12 lines of text and mathematics in fewer than 10 lines. It appears to be thin, shallow and weak in what it says.

However, it is quite clear that the Minister will have nothing to do with the amendment. I am content that we should differ on this matter at least, unless and until I return on Third Reading to try yet again to persuade him or to ask the House to express a view. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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4.15 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 9, after ("premises)") insert ("inspected in accordance with Schedule 1, having particular regard to paragraph 18 (Standards of inspection)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have never understood why in politics consistency is regarded as such a cardinal virtue. Politicians seem positively to rejoice in saying about whatever it is, "I said in 1946, and I still say today". Such people seem to me--a poor, provincial, Protestant poet and professor, a mere academic--to show a remarkable inability to profit from experience and a stubborn resistance to the virtues of progressive change. But consistency has its place and in relation to this Bill it is in the establishment of general and continuing standards.

The amendment seeks to introduce a set of basic minimum standards against which all nursery providers will be inspected. It would put pressure on the Secretary of State to establish common criteria relating to staffing numbers, qualifications, training and experience, as well as to those relating to indoor and outdoor space regulations.

We have been over this ground previously. In Committee our concerns regarding the quality of provision under these arrangements were discussed at some length. Today I shall be more brief. We are all agreed that a commitment to raise educational standards is one to which we would all adhere. But there is a chance now to put that into practice at the very beginning. If the Government's commitment to quality assurance under these arrangements is serious, they ought to pay heed to these arguments.

I am advised that there are more than 400,000 people working with children under five. I was astonished at that figure and I caused inquiry to be made among those who advised me as to how exactly it was arrived at. They seemed to scratch their heads a lot and say, "It is more or less that. It is somewhere in the region of that". If the Government have any better figures, I should be grateful if the Minister would let us have them when he comes to reply, having been given any information which he may seek.

A large number of people are involved. The vast majority are women, many of whom are low paid and have few qualifications. It has been estimated that one in 10 of those working with children under five has no qualifications to do so. The diverse nature of early years provision in this country has meant difficulty in obtaining accurate figure for the number of four year-olds without places, let alone statistics relating to the qualifications of those working with young children. But if the declining number of students on teacher training courses is anything to go by, the future for such children does not appear to be bright. On Friday last week I said that we shall never see any great improvement in educational standards in this country until we get down to the basic issue of paying teachers very much more than they currently earn.

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This amendment would ensure common quality levels or standards for staff qualifications by which parents could be reassured that their child was obtaining the best possible educational experience. Similarly, there exist huge disparities in terms of premises, facilities and staff/child ratios. In many rural areas particularly, where parents will not realistically have any choice between the different forms of provision (unless they have access to helicopters or hot-air balloons or an extremely fast car) because these places are going to be very far apart, the choice will be extremely limited.

A requirement for inspectors to inspect quantitative factors such as staff numbers or the suitability of premises would help, because it would inform parents of how the situation with a particular provider compared with a national set of common criteria. That does inform choice. If that provider did not meet those required standards, in order to continue its registration under the scheme improvements would have to be made. Parents would then have some form of guarantee that their voucher was paying for the best possible quality nursery education. That is what choice means in this situation; it does not mean that if there are 16 different forms of pre-school education available throughout the country, any one single parent is going to have access to any particular number of them, unless they are prepared to take their child from Penzance to Wick. Without that, and until Her Majesty's Government can provide this, choice in this context is a phantasm, a snare and a delusion.

This amendment, despite Ofsted's overall responsibility for the inspection of all providers, would reduce the possibility that different providers were measured against different criteria. As the Bill stands, the proposed arrangements are such that a single registered nursery inspector, possibly with very limited training or experience, is going to be expected to make judgments about the quality of nursery education provided by any particular institution. Why should the fate of a particular institution be decided by a simple snapshot assessment, subject to the whim of a particular inspector on a particular half-day; or, worse, why should the future achievement of those four year-olds in another particular institution be potentially jeopardised because another inspector, for whatever reason, was unable to recognise the failings of that provision?

Such scenarios are not absurd. They appear to be possible under the current arrangements. Our amendment, which is put forward in a positive spirit, would go at least some way towards preventing that. We are not suggesting that the inspection process should solely involve a checklist of the measurable quality indicators. Those unquantifiable assessments which can often only take place after formal or informal conversations with the staff and children remain vitally important. We are not in favour of these everlasting "tick the box", page after page, assessments. That is a waste of time. However, let us make things easier; otherwise these half-day inspections are simply not going to raise standards or assure quality. I beg to move.

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Baroness Young: My Lords--

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords--

Lord Henley: My Lords, this is Report stage, and after I have spoken, it is only the mover of the amendment who should speak, so I can give way.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I simply did not want to interrupt the noble Baroness, Lady Young. That is all.

The purpose of this amendment is to insert a new clause into the Bill, to which reference is made at the very start of the Bill and which secures that the chief inspector creates a set of common criteria against which inspections are carried out. I shall speak briefly, because the noble Lord, Lord Morris, has been very comprehensive.

The Government have themselves put emphasis on the value of a common system of inspection for all providers of education for four year-olds and, notwithstanding the suggestion that the Minister made in an earlier intervention, I believe that everybody values that element of the Bill. But we want these inspections to be fairly and dispassionately made on the basis of common criteria so that, in truth, all schools, all providers, receive the same quality of inspection.

Of course, there are other factors. There are factors which cannot be quantified for the most part--what one might call "an educated hunch", and we shall return to the matter of the experience of inspectors later on. Of course, this educated hunch plays its part in an assessment of any living organisation, and a school is a living organisation. One cannot measure everything good that goes on in a school. We believe that every school should be inspected on the basis of common criteria which cover the basics of the provision within that school. That should be applied equally to those people who provide education for four year-olds under this Bill.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I have listened with great care to what both the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, have said in supporting this amendment. I was quite shocked to hear--I believe I quote him correctly--the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, talking about the "whim" of an inspector. When one is talking about people who are qualified under the Ofsted arrangements, one cannot describe professional people in those terms.

When Ofsted was being set up--I well recall the debates, and I am sure that my noble friend Lady Perry will recall them as well--a great many frightening things were said about the disasters which would befall standards in schools when Ofsted was established. In fact, quite the reverse has proved to be the case. Schools are now regularly inspected; we now have accurate measurements; we have discovered where schools are failing the children; and at the end of the day it is what happens to the children in the schools that is the important point.

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Let me make it quite clear, and repeat what my noble friend the Minister said on an earlier amendment: many of these establishments are not inspected at all at the present time, so they are going to be inspected for the first time. To describe the people who are going to be inspecting these children as having a whim and having different standards, and to talk about an educated hunch, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, did, is to bring into disrepute people who are professionally qualified and who are there to do a professional job on an issue which is of great importance, particularly to the children, but also to the parents.

As far as the schools are concerned, looking at Clause 3 of the Bill, the Secretary of State has the power to impose "requirements" on those who are going to receive the grants in respect of nursery education, and in the next set of documents I have with me there is a list of conditions which the voucher-redeeming institutions will be required to satisfy. They will have to show that they are going to work to a set of desirable learning outcomes, as my noble friend Lady Perry said earlier; they will have to agree to regular inspection; and, as I understand it, they are going to be required to publish information for parents on an annual basis. There is a whole sequence of things listed, including staffing policies, staff numbers, qualifications and training, educational programmes and activity, record keeping, progress recording and reporting to parents, premises and equipment, health and safety, equal opportunities, special educational needs, and so on. This is something which parents have never had before. It will give them an extremely important opportunity to make a judgment between one school and another and, above all, it should require that high standards are kept.

This is a very serious matter. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, on that point. However, I believe that serious debate on it will not be advanced by impugning the standards of professional people. We must start by having confidence in the inspectors. I for one have that confidence, and I have no reason to suppose that what has been successfully achieved in other parts of the educational world will not be achieved in this area.

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